I’m in the process of reading Tim Harford’s 2017 book Fifty Inventions That Shaped the World. The book seeks to identify and discuss the impact of various “inventions” including not only things but processes as well. Tim not only talks about the inventions themselves but the ripple effect of them to society as a whole. Of course, that’s a bit of an obvious tact (that Tim does well) which others have done. But Tim also talks at length about one other good point that particularly resonated with me: some inventions don’t take hold when they are created but only later when conditions become right and obstacles inherent in the old method of doing things pre-invention are overcome. I thought about this theory in light of the slow take of the legal field of technology and innovation.

Some inventions don’t take hold when they are created but only later when conditions become right and obstacles inherent in the old method of doing things pre-invention are overcome.

Some examples found in the book: The electric motor was actually invented in the mid 1870’s at a time when most manufacturing was done by steam powered engines. These steam dynamos were huge, took lots of space, had to be configured just so, and were very inefficient. There was a single driveshaft that ran the entire length of the factory and the work was mostly done adjacent to this driveshaft. Due to the way they were powered—mostly via coal furnaces–they had to run almost all the time.  Yet despite the obvious immediate advantage of the electric motor-smaller, cheaper faster—they weren’t adopted by many factory owners till much later.

To take advantage of electricity, factory owners had to think in a very different way

Why? As Tim puts it, “to take advantage of electricity, factory owners had to think in a very different way”. Electric motors had to deployed differently with each workbench having a single power system. More importantly, workers set the pace of work not the steam engine since the electric motor could be stopped and started easily.

Says Tim, to take advantage of the electric motor “you needed to change everything: the architecture, the production process, how the workers were used. And because workers had more autonomy and flexibility, you had to change the way they were recruited, trained and paid.” Sound familiar?

Of course, ultimately change won out.

Another example: the shipping container. Shipping containers-which you see stacked alongside giant cranes at any port– were invented many years before they became mainstream. Before shipping containers, goods were loaded on wooden pallets, the pallets then transferred to the ship and the good unloaded and stacked in various ways. It was a labor intensive, time consuming job, often taking longer than the actual trip itself. Mainstream use of shipping containers standardized the process and reduced loading time but didn’t become mainstream until various social obstacles were overcome. The unions resisted the idea-they were used to loading ships the way they always had (in the more time-consuming way) and were skeptical of change and fearful of a loss of jobs. The regulators liked the status quo and didn’t want to change. It was not until the 60s that these containers became widely accepted, believe it or not.

In fact, it was only adopted when the chief executives got involved, took control and said change was going to happen.

Yet another example: the bar code for merchandise. I am old enough to remember the old cash registers where cashiers had to ring up and record the price of each item one by one. It was slow and time consuming. The bar code?  Invented in 1948 but not widely used until much later since it had to be integrated into an entire system and different business model to work effectively. In fact, it was only adopted when the chief executives got involved, took control and said change was going to happen.

By the way, the bar code changed the balance of power in the grocery industry from Mom and Pop stores to big chains.

The implications for law from all these inventions are obvious. We have a slow antiquated system that’s been in place forever. We have an industry and business built on the billable hour that rewards inefficiencies; but the legal profession– from outside counsel to in-house –literally knows no other. We have a profit-making system based on leverage which means the hiring and recruiting and training of younger members is based on a model that is adverse to efficiencies and technology.

We have a business structure-the partnership—that at least for outside counsel that does not look for or reward r and d activities or innovation. But it’s all we ever known.

We have a business structure-the partnership—that at least for outside counsel that does not look for or reward r and d activities or innovation. But it’s all we ever known. We have regulators who, like those who governed shipping of goods, prefer the status quo either by their nature or in hopes of self-preservation. We don’t allow change agents-those blasted “non-lawyers” into the ownership tent. We have those who are purchasing services literally cut from the same cloth as the vendors-they are lawyers trained in the same way and often actually worked and bought into the business model of most firms.

So just like electric motors, shipping containers and bar codes, legal innovation and technology will have to overcome various obstacles that, as Tim puts, will require the owners of the profession to “think in a different way”. For change to occur, virtually everything about the process, the model and the structure either has to go or be changed. (And as I have said before, unless the chief executive “non-lawyers” of clients get involved there won’t be wholesale change.  Just as the grocery store industry avoided change as long as, pardon the expression, the inmates running the asylum remained in charge).

Efficiencies and better methodology will in the end prevail

The good news: electric motors, shipping containers and bar codes all changed their worlds and, for that matter, ours. Efficiencies and better methodology will in the end prevail. It just takes time and as Tim also points out, dogged determination and hard work.

But change does happen: for those of us who labor in the vineyards, that’s a good end of the year message.

Photo Attribution:

Thomas Kelley via Unsplash

Chuttersnap via Unsplash

Raw Pixel via Unsplash

 



The Best Lawyer You Can Be. A Guide to Physical, Mental, Emotional and Spiritual Wellness By Stewart Levine

 

Stewart Levine’s new book reminds of the Whole Earth Catalogue written a number of years ago by another Stewart-Stewart Brand. For those too young to remember, the Whole Earth Catalogue  was magazine and product catalog published several times a year between 1968 and 1972, and occasionally thereafter, until 1998. While it was directed mainly to a non mainstream, sort of countercultural audience, it did contain all sorts of product information, how to instructions and  other valuable information. The goal of the Catalogue was to introduce those who were interested to some unique tools and information on topics not well addressed other places. Its theme was “access to tools” and that’s by and large what it delivered. Continue Reading A Whole Earth Catalogue for Lawyer Wellness

Sometime ago, I read an article about a former biglaw litigator, Kathleen Dooley, who left biglaw to go in-house for Hu-manity.co. Hu-manity.co is dedicated to enabling individuals to claim legal ownership of their inherent human data as property (i.e., doing good for the world).

Since I, too, was a former biglaw litigator who recently left for something else, I reached out to her to see what prompted her to make the change and how she went about it. I found her to be a fascinating person who gave her change process a lot of thought. Here is my interview of her in which she candidly talks about her change, what she’s doing now and the state of women in law. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did doing it.

Continue Reading Kathleen Dooley: Her Journey From BigLaw to Doing Good and More

Why do some law firms give away content while others wallow in silos?

For most of this week I have been attending the annual trade show of the International Legal Technology Association or ILTA for short. Like most trade shows, ILTA offers a very large and interesting exhibit hall with hundreds of vendors displaying their wares. Continue Reading Sorry Sir: You Have to Buy Something to Get The Socks




Today’s morning keynote at ILTA was a topic near and dear to the heart of most legal industry observers and pundits: the so called Dramatic Shifts in Legal Services. A panel of esteemed luminaries including John Elbasan of Wilkie Farr, Zabrina Jenkins, Starbucks in house counsel, Dan Linna of Northwestern University, Jeffery Schwartz of Hinshaw and last but certainly not least for reasons that will become apparent below, John Fernandez of Dentons. Unrepresented on the panel, ironically, was anyone actively practicing with a law firm which, in and of itself, is emblematic of the continuing gap between those of us who believe there is a better way to provide legal services and those who provide them. Continue Reading Lawyers and Innovation: Let’s Talk About the Elephant In the Room

Here we sit on the virtual eve of the 2018 International Legal Technology Association annual conference.  ILTA, as most readers probably know, is primarily made up of large law firms and better known legal technology vendors and the conferance, along with ABA techShow and LegalWeek are the largest legal tech events.

Once again, I plan on attending and look forward to learning, networking and seeking out vendors in the legal tech space. But I wonder about the future of big conferences like this one. All of these conferences are spectacles, expensive to put on, expensive to attend, and expensive to travel to. In many instances, the bang for the buck can certainly be questioned, especially when there may be other alternatives for the same content at less cost.  Continue Reading ILTA, TechShow and LegalWeek: the Future of the Really BIG Conference


Standard innovation theory tells us that we move from an early adoption phase to mainstream very quickly. This is in part true because our  behaviors are influenced by our peers, how widespread we think the use of a particular product is and how well known the provider of the product is to us. This is particularly the case where the product saves time, is easy to use and produces a better result. And all this is especially true in the legal profession.

If true, then Thomson Reuters’ new Westlaw products announced today may be the event that takes AI and data analytics into the mainstream for the legal profession. Continue Reading Westlaw Edge: AI For Lawyers Goes Mainstream?